A photographer’s trip to the AVN Awards occasions a skin-deep portrait of the adult-film world in “Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at an X Rated Industry,” Michael Grecco’s account of creating his identically titled book of porn-star portraits. In contrast with Grecco’s evocative photos, his film is scattered and platitudinous, skimming the surface of his subjects and betraying his high-art aspirations with a shallow E! aesthetic. Reliable interest in the subject matter should land the film, which opens theatrically May 1, a home on an adventurous cabler, though such a contentious substratum of American culture deserves more thoughtful treatment.

Director Grecco, typically a photojournalist and celebrity portraitist, is introduced setting up shop in a Las Vegas hotel room at the start of the 2007 AVN convention, an annual three-day affair leading up to a televised awards show the film repeatedly invokes as the “Oscars of porn.” Inviting up a plethora of porn stars from the convention floor below, Grecco sets about shooting portraits for his coffee-table book, in which he aims to photograph the people, poses and paraphernalia of the industry, all shot in a non-pornographic context.

Unremarked in the docu is the fact that this has been done before, and done well, by Vanity Fair photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose Gore Vidal-assisted 2004 book of porn star portraits, “Thinking XXX,” and subsequent HBO documentary both bear conspicuous resemblance to Grecco’s projects. Lack of conceptual originality aside, his photogs are unique and sometimes genuinely striking, though they gain little from being over-explained as they are here. Grecco does attempt to inject some suspense into the film, mostly contrived, through his quest to procure elusive crossover star Jenna Jameson and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to sit for portraits, without which, he feels, the series would be incomplete.

Far more interesting than the photographer’s struggle to complete his book are his subjects themselves, which run the gamut from charming, well-adjusted  “alt-porn” actress Joanna Angel to sex-doll designer Matt McMullen, who appears to have only recently emerged from a lengthy residence underneath a rock.

Receiving the most screen time is starlet Sunny Lane, a former figure skater and porn newcomer whose discomfiting combination of chipper perkiness and latent sadness seem to suggest a far darker, more complicated story than the film has the patience to pursue.

While it admirably avoids either schoolboyish titters or schoolmarmish prudery, the docu’s cheery neutrality comes at the expense of any point of view at all. Which is particularly unfortunate, as such a huge confluence of such deeply strange people — from cartoonishly lascivious performers to creepy fans and monomaniacal sex-toy artisans — would seem to invite the kind of serious psychological and anthropological scrutiny Grecco, with his tourist-like enthusiasm, is insufficiently equipped to provide.

Tech contributions are solid, and the relatively brief docu moves along briskly.

Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at an X Rated Industry

  • Production: A Lantern Lane Entertainment release and production, in association with KHG Documentary Prod. Produced by Charles Holland. Executive producer, Michael Grecco. Directed by Michael Grecco. Written by Charles Holland.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Peter Blaha, Kevin Gonzales, Ken Kobre; editor, Jeremy Troy; music, Josef Peters, Jens Funke; music supervisor, Nic Harcourt; associate producer, Troy; line producers, Catherine Eng, Laurie Goldfarb. Reviewed at Laemmle Sunset 5, Los Angeles, April 21, 2009. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 81 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Sunny Lane, Joanna Angel, Peter North, Jesse Jane, Jenna Jameson, Matt McMullen.